Dollhouse 2.1: "Vows" Review

For better or worse, Dollhouse has been a labor of love for Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku. Ostensibly an attempt to explore the complex relationship between studio, network, talent, and audience, the concept has also allowed for exploration of the treatment of women, agency, and identity.

A careful look at the first season reveals a few flaws. First, network interference strongly suggests that they wanted a different show than they received, and that they were disturbed by some of the implications of the premise. Second, as much as "Epitaph One" and "Man on the Street" made it clear that the writing staff understands those implications, the presentation is still feeding into the very issues that the show is meant to expose. And third, the ratings prove out the notion that Joss Whedon has a cult following and critical acclaim, but not much mass appeal.

Before delving into the details, it should be noted that the second season started with ratings that were, quite frankly, abysmal. Joss Whedon already covered himself for one possible cancellation ("Epitaph One"), so we all know that he's smart enough to ensure that this 13-episode second season run is constructed with a possible series conclusion in mind. The real question for Dollhouse fans, of course, is whether or not FOX will shut the show down prematurely or simply refuse to air some unknown amount.

In a way, this feels like the final half of the final season of Angel. Fans knew the end was coming, so every episode was taken in that context. The fans are going to want every episode to be a winner, and they are going to want to feel a sense of planned closure. Unlike Angel, which was designed to go at least one more season, Dollhouse was already concluded once. So this is really a case of Whedon having another season's worth of time to stuff in as much as he had planned and never thought he'd have the chance. (This also mirrors, to an extent, the situation with the fifth season of Babylon 5.)

The good news is that this premiere gives the show a nice jumpstart without ignoring any of the disturbing elements that were brought up in the first season. In particular, we see a situation where Echo is being used as sexual bait to catch an arms dealer, and the client responsible is the man who originally wanted to save her from the Dollhouse, former agent Paul Ballard. He's not comfortable at all with it, but tellingly, he proceeds anyway.

In other words, it hasnâ't taken Ballard long to follow up on his rape of November in the first season, as he is facilitating Echo's rape in this premiere. And the writers twist the knife by having Echo talk about how it's just bodies and it's all about the mission. It sounds like a justification until one realizes that this is how she has been programmed. She was designed to specification to believe what she says, and that means the writers aren't missing the point, they're underscoring it.

They blur the lines even more with the treatment of Whiskey, brilliantly played by Amy Acker. (They only have her for a few episodes this season, so they gave her plenty of juicy material from the start.) I'm not sure why they would allow Whiskey to remember her true origins to the extent that she is now quite unstable. Didn't they learn anything from Alpha and the recent troubles with Echo?

Whatever the case, Whiskey's crisis of identity strikes at the heart of what kind of abuse the Dollhouse represents. She assumes that her fragile emotional balance is the result of poor programming, but Topher points out that she is making choices beyond that programming. The resulting internal conflicts are literally tearing her consciousness apart. It's not a pretty sight, and it sets the stage for what Echo experiences later in the hour.

Echo's situation is different, because it is something she is hiding from everyone but Ballard. The longer an implanted personality remains in an active, the more things tend to get out of control. Echo's mind is no longer allowing those imprints to be erased. The current problem is that it makes her unstable, but with control, she could use that to undermine the Dollhouse.

On the face of it, Ballard is going the right thing by helping Caroline/Echo regain a sense of agency. But as DeWitt points out, it's not as if Ballard is forcing anyone to restore Caroline and fix the other problems that have emerged. Ballard is letting Echo's internal conflicts play out, and letting the Dollhouse use her in the meantime. It's an awfully funny way to be helping someone, even if it allows that person to help regain her own agency in the end.

All of which feeds into that earlier question that was posed: why would DeWitt, Boyd, and Topher allow the actives, particularly Echo and Whiskey, get so out of control? DeWitt seems to be allowing it out of a sense of curiosity and science, but Topher seems terrified at the constant proof that his imprinting has flaws. Boyd seems to see the bigger picture, and he implies that he might challenge DeWitt if the danger to the actives (and the organization) becomes too great. But even in that case, it seems like too little, too late.

Considering what is known from"Epitaph One" (and I interpret that as an unavoidable future), DeWitt's hubris and Topher's growing instability play into what is coming. And we also know that Echo and Ballard will be working together in a more equal capacity, now that he has become her handler. Regardless, one can't imagine that Rossom would let things get too out of control. DeWitt already mentioned, in the first season, that there is competition between Dollhouses as well, so how long will all of this be allowed to continue?

Meanwhile, there is the new senator to consider, and his concerns about Rossom and implied interest in the Dollhouse. This is interesting on a couple of levels. First, this implies that the control of government through the use of actives is limited enough to allow an ambitious senator to become a threat. This could trigger a move by Rossom or others to develop a means to take control of a person remotely, leading to the future seen in "Epitaph One".

Second, it presents an external threat to the familiar Dollhouse that is perhaps more effective than the one posed by Ballard in the first season. Ballard was a man already on the edge, and his choices with Mellie/November made it clear that his ideals were ephemeral. As a member of Congress, the senator has a bit more clout and authority to push for investigation.

Even so, the show is still struggling to avoid sensationalizing the very things it seeks to criticize and expose. The wedding night scenes were designed to show off Eliza in a sexy outfit, and while Whiskey's scenes were among the darkest and most compelling, she was still running around in a skimpy satiny number. There was also a level of violence against Echo that seemed, especially in the end, excessive. I'm sure there will be plenty of debate on those elements. Between that and some quibbles about the logic behind letting the actives get out of control, I can't give Whedon's latest script the usual high marks.


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Oct 3, 2009 7:24PM EDT

I disagree with your use of the label "rape." This is far closer to prostitution- remember these people allowed themselves to be erased for 5 years. In some ways it might be less abusive than regular prostitution, for instance not having to remember clients or services performed. I think the show is far more ambivalent about the doll house than how your portraying it.

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